So it comes down to this, a seemingly simple Butler vs. Duke basketball game on a Monday night across fat America. Two teams with great images - Butler because they came from nowhere, at least according to the pop cultural internal GPS of your average person, and Duke because they have worked long and hard through their athletic department's public relations press releases to make it seem so. And though this seems like just another NCAA national championship game, aleit with an extraordinary amount of whiteboys, this ultimately is a battle for the soul of America.
Butler is from far outside the conventional college super-team. Have you seen Brad Stevens, the coach of Butler? Dude looks like he's 22, and should be hot tracking his way to managing an Autozone, not coaching in a national title game. And his star player, Gordon Hayward, has a very similar goofy Opie Taylor simpleton look. The Bulldogs, the shining jewel of the Horizon League, come into this game as the first Horizon team to make the title game since forever. In fact, the Horizon League is not known athletically for much of anything, outside of this year's Butler team. Only three of the ten member teams play football, and those three (which includes Butler) play on the lower level of Division I, the one that nobody ever sees, especially on TV, but actually has a championship tournament..
Duke could pretty much be considered the shining jewel of college basketball, at least this year's version. There's really only a handful of legit super-teams that could win the title each year, and usually from the same sets of schools. Mike Krzyzewski is considered a great stupid coach because he's put Duke in that club for the past 25 years, while you have a guy like Tom Izzo of Michigan State, who Butler beat on Saturday, who's done the same thing for that team the past decade or so. Every now and then a new wondercoach hits a major college program and establishes himself, replacing one of the other always-contending programs. But when the bracket of 64 (and 96 next year, most likely) is drawn up, it's no more than 10 teams with a legit shot.
Although, very obviously, Butler's little dorky Hoosier Pride parade could toss that thinking out the window. And this is not only big for Butler, but the Horizon League as well. In the NCAA tournament, the six major conferences work like the various Mafia families, and collect the mostest money, as conferences are doled out fat TV checks in relation to how many games their conference played in the tourney. When you come from a major conference with six to eight teams in the tourney, half of which get through the first weekend, with one sometimes two making the Final Four, that adds up to a lot of games, and fat slice of the TV pie. For the one game and done lower echelon conferences, like the Horizon, you ain't getting much. So just the fact Butler will have played six games means every team in the Horizon gets a bigger check than it ever has for this year's tourney.
Of course, the ACC, where Duke is from, had six games under it's belt at the end of the second day of the tournament, and everything else after that has been gravy. When the tournament goes to 96 teams, for every extra Horizon League team that gets in, we can probably expect two ACC teams. That's just how it works, or how it has worked since the '80s when college basketball prosperity exploded into collegiate athletic departments, and all the stupid lesser sports like tennis or golf or women's basketball could be bankrolled by March Madness and college football, for the most part. Except there's two worlds there, where you have a smaller school like Butler that is trying to end up in the black at the end of a year, to come out even on having a bunch of school sports and the necessary fields and buildings and equipment and crap. Then a school like Duke, which has not had a good football team in forever, can build an empire through the basketball money. Better facilities to get better high school kids to make more money in March to skim off of to support everything else like the crappy football team and the highly touted sexually deviant lacrosse team. And though it's an institution of higher learning (a pretty successful industry itself), there's a corporate mind behind it, branding Duke basketball the way it has been branded, creating an aura around it, which all major conference programs would like to do.
Behind the polished facade though, Duke is as sketchy as any other program. Parents of players getting jobs in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina far beyond their education, dudes not going to classes, and Coach K generally considered by anyone who has met him in real life in a non-corporate class setting (for which Coach K clocks $50,000 an appearance) as a first class self-important asshole. He has been riding this wave of financial success at Duke since the '80s, and even the reports out today that crazy Russian billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets wants to give Krzyzewski $15 million a year to coach the pro basketballs probably couldn't tempt Coach K out of the gig he's set up for himself now, with it's continuous returns that he'll stack in the bank until he decides to retire and let them name a new basketball arena after him in Durham.
Brad Stevens is the young and hungry dude, outside the major corporate conferences umbrella, who had to recruit outside the box of the McDonald's high school All-Americans, and find him some kids who had potential that fell through the major conference cracks that wanted to go to some shithole college in the middle of Indianapolis. And then he had to develop that potential. Which he did. This happens every year in the NCAA tournament, but never has it gone to the title game.
The thing is, you know what usually happens to those young and hungry guys, thinking outside the box, who ride the perfect storm of veteran players and a solid system into March success? They get hired to go coach at a major conference team, for bigger money, where their youth and hunger may or may not find success, and they can become one of the high and mighty looking down on the all the little asshole colleges wanting more of the big TV money pie. And probably the only thing that will prevent Brad Stevens from doing that this year is the fact Butler went to the title game, because most of the big programs who fired coaches have already hired new ones, from other small semi-successful schools. In fact, Butler's first game in this tournament was against another mid-major team in UTEP, whose coach Tony Barbee, after getting eliminated from the tourney by Stevens' scrappy little bulldogs, got hooked up with a mega-gig at Auburn of the behemoth SEC conference. There will be plenty of people knocking on Brad Stevens' door next year though.
As for their star player Gordon Hayward, the goofy looking white dude who looks like maybe he has pinheads in his family tree, last month he was the best player in an unknown conference. Now, his name is being tossed around as a first round NBA draft pick. On Duke's roster is a high school blue chipper perennially hyped college player in the form of Kyle Singler, who has a similarly retarded looking head to Hayward. Yet there's none of that "Aw shucks" attitude to Singler. He, along with the rest of the Duke team, have the entitled swagger of the wealthy elite. They don't give a damn about the pros, because the bigger stars of Duke are gonna be there guaranteed. They just want to whoop up on these Butler boys and keep them from messing up Coach K getting yet another trophy for his country club basketball program, so he can increase his speaking fees.
And whoop up on them they will, regardless of the score. Watching the West Virginia/Duke game the other night, it was crazy how brutal Duke plays, especially their bully center Brian Zoubek. He was beating up on people with questionable picks all night long, culminating in he and Jon Scheyer double dropkicking Da'Sean Butler's ACL, and killing that dude's NBA value in the process. Of course, the ref's actually called the foul on Butler, waiting for him to stop writhing on the floor in agony, crying with his head coach, to give Duke the ball on the offense.
That's the way it rolls in these things. The system is designed to uphold those held in high esteem. Verdicts go in favor of the corporate program, not the little upstart company. That's done us all a lot of good the past few years as we either haven't been in a recession (like under Bush, allegedly) or it's bottomed out and getting better now so go spend money (as it has been under Obama, allegedly). That's Duke basketball. Hell, that's Duke undergrads. I don't know who the hell goes to Butler, but I would imagine they are far less beautiful in a synthetic sense as Dukies, and don't drive new leased German rides their daddy got them.
It would be nice to see Butler win tonight, and have more Brad Stevenses pop up at other small conference teams, and other Gordon Haywards use March Madness as a chance to be part of a great team that makes a great run and not just create a highlight clip reel for NBA scouts and agents. It would be nice to pretend crap like that can still happen, and the corny ass Hoosiers storyline could be updated to 2010, so we could pretend you can work your way up from the bottom and live your dream. But come on. This is still America. Hayward will go pro and be mired in the middle of an NBA bench where wins and losses get lost behind playing minutes. Brad Stevens will be coach of somewhere else far larger in two years time, hoping to keep a little bit of his moral compass as he navigates the sketchy world of top high school recruits and major college athletic boosters. At that point, the tournament will have 96 teams, and the Coach Ks of the biggest programs in the bigger conferences will still be collecting their seven-figure commission off the massive amounts of money those choice schools will be raking off a screwed-up system. And Coach K will still be considered a great American success story, and charge $75,000 per corporate speaking engagement. Ain't nothing gonna change except the numbers on the checks. And most of Indiana will be unemployed, still watching Hoosiers longingly for the way it once was, and filled with an ignorant pride about what it truly means to be American.